Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant painter who died penniless because he wasn’t a brilliant salesman.
You’re probably no van Gogh (let’s be honest), but you do have talents. You’re good at some things, and you may even be great at something. But unless one of the things you’re good at is convincing other people to pay you for the work you do, it’s probable that you and Vincent do have at least one thing in common:
You’ll probably die broke, too.
Creators Are Rarely Marketers, and Vice Versa
While interviewing Matthew Ebel on the Freelance 4 Real podcast this week, I realized that those of us who are truly passionate about art and creation are often horrible at selling the very things we make.
Not only are we our own worst critics, but we’re also our own worst self-promoters, and it’s usually for the same reason: we know all the flaws in our work.
When I look at something I’ve made, I see what it could have been, and that makes it almost impossible for me to convince someone else that it’s wonderful, because — to me — it’s fallen short of what I want it to be.
Meanwhile, when someone approaches my work as a viewer, a reader, an outsider, they might love it because they have no idea what it could have been, or what I intended it to be; they can only appreciate it for what it is, or by comparing it to other things that also exist (and which have also probably been dismissed by their own creators).
So, as artists or musicians or filmmakers or other voluntary devotees of the aesthetic life, when it comes time for us to put on our business hats, we often have trouble thinking about (and pricing) our skills and services objectively. We’re inclined to charge too little for what we do because we’re comparing our work to our own idealized version of ourselves — which is priceless — rather than pricing ourselves reasonably, or in honest comparison with our peers.
We might even feel like expecting people to pay us for our work is an affront or a burden. (After all, we know what head cases we can really be; how can we saddle someone else with a bill for putting up with us?)
And this is why I think independent artists who have even a vague amount of self-awareness should do something radically practical:
Hire an agent.
Pay Someone Else to Pimp You
Maybe you only need one buyer or one contract to get by, or maybe you need as much work as you can handle. Whatever the case, if you have trouble selling yourself, hire someone else to sell you instead.
An agent only makes money when you make money, which means your agent needs to find ways to sell you to the right buyer(s). And that means your agent’s skill set is drastically different from your own. While you might be great at creativity, problem solving and general efficiency, your agent is good at networking, pricing and sales. S/he understands that creative types can’t see themselves for what they are, so s/he makes a business of convincing other people of how you should be seen.
And when that business model works, you both profit.
There’s a reason aspiring actors, writers and athletes rejoice the day they land an agent: it means someone with connections believes they just found an asset (AKA you) which their connections will believe is worth employing, AND it means you can now focus on your craft, rather than on convincing someone else that your craft is worth paying for. (That’s your agent’s job now.)
But what if you’re not the kind of person who even wants long-term contracts?
What if the act of selling yourself is so unpalatable to you — even when someone else is doing it for you — that you’d almost rather revert to a 9 to 5 job than ever have to go to another pitch meeting again?
There’s a solution for you, too:
Make things that sell themselves.
Productize So You Can Prioritize
One of the dirty little secrets about freelance is that if you’re spending all your time trying to land new jobs, you’re never really focused on the work. (When you’re part of a small agency, the same rules apply — there, your creatives are your salespeople, and they’re burning their candles at both ends.)
If chasing paychecks isn’t your idea of a fulfilling life, and if having someone else chase them for you just feels like screwing yourself with a condom on, change who you are: stop being a freelancer and start being a craftsman.
A freelancer goes where the work is. A craftsman makes things that inspire the buyers come to him.
Sure, you still need to advertise. And if you’re a typical self-loathing artisan (or, worse, if you’re delusional about your own talents), you may want to ask someone with a level head to do your advertising for you.
But this way you’ll be focused on making great work that people want or need, instead of needing to convince someone that you’re worth investing in over long periods of time, and then repeating that same sales cycle every time the work runs out.
As long as you keep making things that delight your audience or solve their problems, you can stay in business. And isn’t making great work the whole reason you want to wake up in the morning?
Sometimes, freelance isn’t about convincing people you’re worth it.
Sometimes it’s about being worth it, and then handing out maps so people can find you.